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The Columbine Incident and the Radical Tradition in America: An Interactive Forum

by Nicholas Turse

I would very much like to thank all three commentators for taking the time to respond to my humble little piece—despite the fact that one of them has attempted to link me with Nazism, an ideology I most certainly do not espouse. I must offer special thanks to Sam Smith for offering, despite his proximity to the tragedy, a decidedly equitable and non-reactionary viewpoint coupled with a strong argument. I personally learned quite a bit about tolerance from Dr. Smith's ability to blend objection with decorum and would humbly suggest that all who read his piece take special note. Finally, to avoid a rebuttal that dwarfs my original article, I will attempt to reply briefly to a few of the points that most troubled my able critics.

I must say that I was utterly shocked by the bulk of Adam Garfinkle’s critique. No doubt this tragedy touched him quite profoundly and has rendered his reaction quite emotional. His assertion that I am seeking to ally myself with the cause of "Messrs. Harris and Klebold," and by extension, with Nazism, is troubling to me. I would suggest that Dr. Garfinkle re-read my original piece and reconsider whether he has discounted a philosophical base that is neither Nazism nor what is generally considered a Leftist ideology.

Moreover, I was also alarmed that Dr. Garfinkle spent his valuable time searching for "logical train[s]" in an article based upon, and written in, the rapid-fire style of random, senseless violence. Dr. Garfinkle seems very interested in the fact that we don't know what Harris and Klebold "‘meant’ by their act," and keeps asking "why?" He misses the radicalism inherent in the fact that we are left to wonder. Months after the tragedy, Dr. Garfinkle is calling me a Nazi over it, I'm still writing about it, and people are still in a state of shock over it. In my book, that’s effective radicalism! If Klebold and Harris had marched into Columbine High School with water pistols, read a coherent manifesto, and wetted down only those who they considered "enemies," Dr. Garfinkle might label them "proper" radicals. That's his prerogative, but obviously we differ in our opinions.

Dr. Garfinkle also seems troubled by the fact that today’s millennial radical won’t "fight the good fight" and be jailed for his crimes. Again, he’s missing the point! Klebold and Harris thumbed their noses at the system; they killed themselves rather than receive prison sentences. They took matters into their own hands by executing at will and then escaping the punishment of the criminal justice system and the trappings which follow, such as turning on each other, "finding Jesus" in prison, or expressing remorse on a TV talk show. While there may be nothing wrong with being "born again" or with "ratting out" your accomplice, both are decidedly un-radical acts for a violent youth. While dying in a hail of gunfire in a shootout with police is probably the preferred cinematic scenario for disaffected urban terrorists, I posit that killing oneself in the manner of Klebold and Harris is a tad more radical than over-dosing in an old turkey-coop as did Abbie or "selling out" like Rudd.

Which brings me to my next point, and the one point with which all three of my critics seemed to take great issue—my references to Mark Rudd and Abbie Hoffman, writ small, and to 1960s radicalism, writ large. Their counter-argument seems to be that Rudd was tough-talk without the walk, Hoffman was a happy hippie (or yippie), and neither did anything remotely analogous to gunning down schoolchildren. All I can say is: precisely! I chose these two Sixties icons because of the fact that they are very far removed from the today's Klebold and Harris-esque radicals. Mark talked a good game and Abbie wrote a good game—that’s where, for all intents and purposes, their radicalism ended.

Further, save for a few notable exceptions, this was where much of the radicalism of the 1960s stopped: big talk, bigger dreams, and actions that did not yield the intended results of restructuring society. In saying this, I in no way mean to denigrate the radical results of the era. Far from it! My contention, and my reason for raising the specter of the sixties (and naming Rudd and Hoffman), is that I see Harris, Klebold and their ilk as the children born of the radicalism of the 1960s. Born, perhaps, of what David Farber terms "a sort of silly academic" radicalism far removed from the brand of the Sixties, but one that similarly recognized a system in need of attack. Just because Rudd or Hoffman were never able to carry out such an attack, doesn’t preclude them from having influence, "silly" or not, in the form of radical lineage.

Dr. Garfinkle, for all his high-minded rhetoric, seems to delight in the fact that Mark Rudd was not a true radical because he ran in the face of the "Days of Rage" rioting, and subsequently, as he so eloquently stated, had the "living shit [beat] out of him" by Black Panthers. The fact of it is, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris enacted their own "Day of Rage," and one where nobody but they did the beating. Abbie wrote about how to concoct Molotov cocktails, but Klebold and Harris assembled actual bombs. Today's millennial radicals take the next step on the ladder of radicalism. They up the ante. Their guerrilla theater doesn't have to be the 1960s version that Dr. Garfinkle longs for, because they (as I said in my original essay) reinvented it. It is brand new; it is today's guerrilla theater; it is a theater of real violence on the grand stage of television.

On a final note, while I had extreme objections to much of Adam Garfinkle's essay, he raises one point that I find both poignant and helpful in rounding out this discussion—his mention of Cassie Bernall, who tragically lost her life during the Columbine massacre by standing up for her beliefs. Dr. Garfinkle voices his admiration of this remarkable young woman and I must do the same, as I would for any who die for their beliefs. But he also makes a clear value judgment in doing so: simply stated, Bernall is "good" because she died for her belief in God; whereas Harris and Klebold died for reasons unknown, taking innocents with them, and are therefore "bad." Dr. Garfinkle is entitled to his viewpoint, but I do not have such a high opinion of myself to pass judgment on whether others’ actions are morally right or wrong. I will simply reaffirm my assertion that Klebold and Harris acted in a manner that I venture to term radical and that they are heirs to a long tradition of American radicalism that was infused with great life some thirty years ago. Certainly there is not a linear causation evident. All I ask is that the reader look deep into the cultural psyche which has bred the disaffected youth of the millennial age, and query whether the loosening of norms enabled by Sixties radicalism have contributed in any way to today’s radicalism. If that is "silly" and "academic," then label me a "silly academic." I, however, will leave the labeling to those better able to cast stones.

Nicholas Turse is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History, Columbia University.